Vixen knew she wasn't particularly fast at tying net, not compared to shyani who had learned young and practised all their lives, but then, that was true about a long list of skills, and the collective response of Copper Springs was simply to teach her and encourage her.
Since a shyani hill was always built near a river or lake with abundant fish, the primary source of protein other than eggs, nets were always useful to have. The same technique created bags of varying size and purpose, and other items as well, so it was one she was working diligently to master. Shuttle wound with cord she'd spun the previous day, spacer to use in keeping the size regular, needle and scissors, and in the basket by her side was a spool of further cord along with the materials for other things she was currently working on.
Half of her attention, however, stayed always on Chira and Ellai's cubs. Brother and sister were romping in the autumn leaves, squabbling over a couple of large bones, ambushing each other, and in general enjoying playing in the sunshine. Within a very few more years, they'd begin to join their parents on multi-day hunting trips like the one the two adults and Dayr were currently on, rather than shorter hunts closer to home, but for now, their lives were still all about play.
She glanced up as a shadow fell across her, and smiled in greeting, though he might not have seen it. “The sun's still high, Tethan, you'll hurt your eyes.” Tethan was around her own age, or a few years older, and not long after she'd gained her fox and osana tattoos, he'd begun to make a determined effort to help her feel at home. It was an effort for which she was genuinely grateful.
“Then I'll keep them mostly closed,” he said lightly, settling himself beside her. “Uncomfortably bright though it may be, it does feel wonderfully warm. In another two months, we'll be wishing for bright days again.”
Actually, the temperature varied little inside a hill. So much earth was piled over it that it did resemble a true hill, overgrown with grass and wild plants. Only two external doors allowed chilly air inside. In the space between the outer and inner stone walls was a ditch, which collected the heavy cool air and was, incidentally, quite effective storage for some foods. The doors in the inner wall sealed quite well, and the mostly-ceramic stoves were efficient not only at food preparation but at heating. No one would suffer much inside from the depths of winter.
Of course, going outside was another matter.
“True,” she admitted. “And I do find it hard over the winter, having so little sunlight. It's distinctly inconvenient, needing sunlight more consistently.”
“Weyres always have erratic schedules,” he pointed out. “We're all used to that. Sometimes, even with all a shaman and a witch can do, someone is born lacking, or later loses, sight or hearing or mobility or other things, and we make accommodations for that because they're family. So are you. And there are things you can do that no shyani can. Your ability to see colours below the threshold where they all become grey to us, for example, and there are advantages to being able to see well in the middle of the day. Differences are a strength for the hill. Needing some sunlight even in midwinter is something we can work around.”
She smiled. “I hope whatever hill I go to once Sano decides I'm ready has the same sort of philosophy.”
“You aren't planning on leaving us already.”
“No, I think it'll be years yet, if not an entire lifetime. A shaman is supposed to understand traditions, and I'm not sure I ever will.”
“I think you're worrying too much. Even Sano checks with the grandparents about traditions. A shaman is supposed to understand them, but that isn't the part of a shaman's role that no one else can do. You'll get it eventually. No one expects you to completely understand every unwritten aspect of shyani culture after only a couple of years. Except maybe you.”
“Mm. It's frustrating sometimes, feeling like I'm finally home and yet tripping over things that any child knows.”
“You are home. Not knowing things doesn't change that. It just means that those of us who understand will try not to make assumptions and will try to be clear about meaning and intention.” He leaned back, hands flattened on the ground to either side for support, turning his face toward the sun with his eyes closed. Though shyani did prefer dawn and dusk, they also enjoyed sunbathing on spring and autumn days when the sun was less fierce and less likely to turn that fair skin to an angry red. “As much as those of us who care about you might wish you'd never been anywhere else, you wouldn't be you otherwise, and some of us would consider that a sad thing.”
“You wouldn't know,” she pointed out. “There'd be no me as I am for you to regret not meeting. And me as I might have been if I'd been born here would probably be an improvement.”
“There, we'll have to disagree.”
She muttered a curse under her breath, her attention shifting entirely to the net in her hands. “This isn't that complicated, how did I manage to mess it up?”
“Did you just start a new row?”
“Then that's probably where.” He sat forward and moved around so he was facing her, his shadow falling across her hands and the net. “There. And it's not so hard to fix. Hold the shuttle, but let me have the needle?” One work-roughened pale-skinned hand made more contact with hers than strictly necessary, taking the needle; Vixen glanced up in surprise, but Tethan had his gaze on the net, intent on undoing the last few knots. Since she had the shuttle still, and had to pass it back through each time, it did take some coordination, but it didn't take long at all to have the mistake repaired.
“Thank you,” she said. “I know the occasional flaw doesn't keep it from working, but I'd rather not get in the habit of making things poorly.”
“That's unlikely for you.”
“I think it might be time to take a break before I do any more.” She wrapped it up neatly and tucked it into the basket at her side to join the wheel-discs and small frames used for elaborate multi-strand braids, her current braiding project and bundles of dyed cord, the drop-spindle that worked best for some sorts of fibres and bundles of several sorts of plant and animal fibre that needed proper spinning.
“Am I distracting you?” he teased.
“Either I'll make more mistakes, or I'll end up ignoring either you or the cubs, and I'd rather not do any of those things.”
“Hm, probably best if I don't make you ignore the cubs. Ellai being angry at me is a terrifying thought. And they're having far too much fun to make them go indoors yet.” He returned to his spot beside her, no longer blocking her view, though the cubs were making enough noise in the fallen leaves that she could keep track of them as much by sound as sight.
“I'm hoping they'll eat and then fall asleep early and soundly.”
“And meanwhile, they get a treat while their parents are away, since no shyani would bring two very active cubs out in the middle of a clear day, even at this time of year. Something they're enjoying and wouldn't have if you weren't you, hm?”
“True,” she admitted. “There are moments, occasionally, when it's actually helpful, being different.”
They watched the cubs in companionable quiet for a moment, as they worried at a turtle they pulled out of the stream that the donkeys drank from. It was unlikely they could injure it, so she didn't intervene.
Tethan chuckled. “The first time they saw a turtle was hilarious. They simply could not figure out why a rock was moving.”
“I wish I'd seen it.” She had no trouble imagining it, though.
“You don't laugh often enough, but that would've done it.” A brief pause. “What are you planning to do after the cubs are tired?”
“Turn them over to Nuriel so he can feed them, and get some sleep. Shabra and I went through the medicines that should be on hand, and several are lower than they really should be. Sano just doesn't have quite enough time to keep up, between two students with very different histories, one pregnant woman and one heavily pregnant donkey, one upcoming calling ritual to prepare for, and all the regular day to day responsibilities, and Nuriel was distracted all summer by that blight attacking the oaks. Some of them, Shabra and I can make alone, and most of the rest we'll be able to do the majority of the work on. One less thing for Sano to worry about, and Nuriel needs the rest. We'll have to do some gathering, but I promised Dayr I wouldn't go far without him. I'm not sure what trouble he expects me to get into, but I'm not sure he'd ever let me out of his sight if I didn't promise.”
“Hm, yes, your loyal protector, and pity any lover you find that he disapproves of.” He sounded like he was joking, but something in the tone didn't entirely fit.
“Not currently a concern, since no one has shown any particular interest in the job.”
“Are you hoping someone will?”
She watched the cubs in silence for a moment. “I don't know. Sex before was never very satisfying, and my reasons were mostly not what they should have been, although I did do my best to make sure they never had reason to regret it. It's the one situation that forces me to be the most aware of my own body and that it isn't what my mind says it should be. Now, though, and with the right person... it might be different.”
“Have you had any thoughts about who the right person might be?”
Startled, Vixen twisted in place to look at him, and found herself gazing directly into blue shyani eyes—just a fraction larger than human, the iris dominating the white just a little more, the currently almost-invisible pupil able to expand just a bit wider to capture dimmer light. Some were more of a deep blue, like Tethan's, or a brighter blue like Sano's, or soft grey, like Shabra's, but she had yet to meet a shyani with eyes not some shade of blue or grey. With hair in varying shades of blonde and skin typically light from avoiding the midday sun and those eyes, it was no wonder tanned humans, with hair and eyes of predominantly brown shades, saw them as exotic and alien. She no longer saw them as either.
“I... no, I haven't been thinking about it. A good friend. Someone I know understands, or at least tries to, since I'm not entirely sure I understand either. Someone I know cares.”
“In the interests of being clear... you know shyani usually choose a partner for life, and separation is unusual. It would be absurd to make a commitment like that without knowing one's partner and oneself very well first and both being very certain that it's what they want. And the only way to do that is to try.” He laid a hand over hers without looking away. “Am I a good enough friend?”
Vixen dropped her own gaze, down to their overlapped hands. Much the same size, though hers was darker; his was rough from woodworking, something he had an acknowledged talent for, and the never-ending less-specialized tasks of net-fishing and harvesting what came into season; hers was much less soft than it had been when she'd first come here, though shamans and witches were typically not expected to contribute to heavier labour.
What did she want?
She trusted Tethan, cared about him and knew he cared about her, a connection built over a couple of years of her work on rebuilding her self-identity and his willingness to offer whatever help he could. Had she actually been considering the whole idea, she would without hesitation have put him at the top of the list. The shyani concept of love was different from the human one, recognizing sexual desire and passion without equating it to love; marriages were based on a complex braid of close friendship, sexual compatibility, shared goals, and a variety of other factors rather than on 'falling in love' or on more mercenary or political motivations. In the shyani sense, she certainly loved Tethan, and the possibility of a long future together had its appeal.
But what did she want? Would it be only an exercise in frustration, another reminder of the mismatch between body and mind? Would that ultimately damage a friendship she valued?
“I'm not a woman,” she said quietly.
A pause for a couple of heartbeats. “You're you,” he said, and he sounded perplexed. “What else would you be?”
It might not be so easily damaged.
She reversed her hand under his and laced her fingers through his. “I couldn't ask for a better friend.” She smiled, finally meeting his eyes again. “But I'm not going anywhere at the moment until the cubs are tired.”
“Responsibility first,” he agreed, but he did raise her hand and turn his own so he could kiss her palm. “There's no hurry. I'm not going anywhere either.”
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